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Rainer Weiss personal archives

Identifier: MC-0517

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Scope and Contents of the Collection

This collection documents the research interests of Rainer Weiss, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who was also affiliated with the Research Laboratory of Electronics, and later the Center for Space Research at MIT. The bulk of materials date from the early 1970s to 1999, and document the experimental and theoretical aspects of the COBE satellite and balloon observations related to cosmic microwave background measurements (Series 1 and 2) as well as materials related to the founding and development of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) (Series 3). In addition, the materials help document inter-institutional (university and government) scientific collaborations. Laboratory notebooks in Series 4 are from both areas of research.

To date (2016) the collection does not include personal information about the celebrations and announcement of the detection of gravitational waves (in 2015 and 2016).

SERIES 1, Balloon-Borne Cosmic Background Radiation Observation Records, includes balloon-borne cosmic background radiation observation files created in the course of a number of balloon flights launched for the purpose of recording data about cosmic background radiation. Most flights occurred in the early- to mid-1970s. Records consist primarily of data, graphs, flight reports, technical specifications, calibration data, and calculations. Items in box 7 (Flight data, Flight data chart paper rolls, Flight housekeeping data, Flight noise studies, Flight signal averages / rotation each from the January 28, 1974 flight) are to be used with tapes created from the January 28, 1974 flight (housed in box 8). The materials represent a sample of each type of documentation resulting from a single balloon flight. This sample was selected by Weiss to illustrate the types of records created and their relationship to an observation flight. Included are chart recorder printouts, 14" Ampex computer tape, 4" DEC computer tape, and handwritten charts and graphs. Additional materials relating to these flights include computation books, data, and reports.

SERIES 2, Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) Records, contains materials compiled by Rainer Weiss as part of the COBE Science Working Group consisting of Samuel Gulkis (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Michael Hauser (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), John Mather (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), George Smoot (University of California, Berkeley), and David Wilkinson (Princeton). The working group imagined and planned the experiments to be carried out on the NASA COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) space mission. Materials date from initial thoughts in the early 1970s, formal study since 1976 when the COBE Satellite project was funded by NASA. The Satellite was launched November 18, 1989, with three instruments, the Differential Microwave Radiometer (DMR); Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS); and Diffuse Infrared Background Experiment (DIRBE). Measurements from the instruments were terminated December 12, 1993.

Materials include correspondence about COBE and related activities, published articles and notices about the project, proposals and grants, budgets, data, diagrams, formal reports and reviews, and handwritten notes by Weiss. There are also technical documents related to the three instruments used in the COBE experiments.

SERIES 3, Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Records, consists of materials documenting the inception and early development of LIGO.

from the February 2016 LIGO Press Conference Fact Sheet: "What is LIGO? LIGO consists of two widely separated interferometers within the United States—one in Hanford, Washington, and the other in Livingston, Louisiana—each a laser interferometer inside an L-shaped ultra-high vacuum tunnel and operated in unison to detect gravitational waves.The California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology led the design, construction and operation ofthe NSF-funded facilities."

Materials in the Rainer Weiss papers include information about site decisions, National Science Foundation grant proposals, and many articles and publications about the project. There are also technical reports outlining cost estimates; articles, reviews, and press coverage pertaining to LIGO; some correspondence about grants and speaking engagements; a proposal for the LISA project; correspondence and handouts pertaining to a workshop on LIGO; and data about and from LIGO prototypes. There are also LIGO research documents written by or with members of the larger group of scientists in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC).

SERIES 4, Laboratory Notebooks, includes research computation books created by graduate students and researchers in the Rainer Weiss laboratory. Research dates are from the early 1970s to 1999.


  • Creation: 1946 - 1999


Access note

Portions of this collection must be reviewed to identify any restricted material before access can be granted. Please submit your requests at least ten business days before your desired visit to allow time for this review. An archivist will respond within five business days to let you know whether your requested material is open. For complete information on this policy, see our Statement on Accessing Institute Records. Restrictions and materials requiring review are noted in the finding aid.

Conditions Governing Use

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Please see the MIT Libraries Permissions Policy for permission information. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection or MIT.


Rainer Weiss, 1932 --, earned an SB in physics in 1955 and a PhD in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1962. He was an instructor and assistant professor of physics at Tufts University 1960-1962, at Princeton University from 1962 to 1964 before joining the faculty at MIT where he was assistant professor of physics, 1964-1967; associate professor of physics, 1967-1973; professor of physics, 1973-2002; and emeritus, 2002-present. At MIT he was also affiliated with the Research Laboratory of Electronics, and later with the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

from the Department of Physics faculty page:

Research interests of Rainer Weiss included experimental atomic physics, atomic clocks, laser physics, experimental gravitation, millimeter and sub-millimeter astronomy, and cosmic background measurement. He worked on atomic clock development, a balloon program for measuring cosmic background radiation, the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite program, and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).

Weiss has served on numerous professional panels and scientific committees for NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the National Academies of Science (NAS), and the National Research Council (NRC).

Professional awards include election to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 2000. In 2006, he was awarded, as part of the COBE Team, the Gruber Cosmology Prize, which honors a leading cosmologist, astronomer, astrophysicist, or scientific philosopher, for theoretical, analytical, conceptual, or observational discoveries leading to fundamental advances in our understanding of the universe. The following year he was named a co-recipient of the Einstein Prize of the American Physical Society “for fundamental contributions to the development of gravitational wave detectors based on optical interferometry, leading to the successful operation of LIGO.”

In 2016, Rainer Weiss won the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, sharing the prize with Kip Thorne, Caltech’s Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, emeritus, and with Ronald Drever, emeritus professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The prize honors the three for their instrumental role in establishing LIGO, an effort that led to the direct detection of gravitational waves. In May and June 2016 additional awards recognized the three scientists when they were awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (which they shared with their many LIGO collaborators); also the Gruber Cosmology Prize; and then the Shaw Prize in Astronomy.

Biographical note

Rainer Weiss supervised the PhD dissertations of Dirk Muehlner (1970), David Owens (1976), Patricia Downey (1980), Daniel Dewey (1986), Jeffrey Livas (1987), Nelson Christensen (1990), Peter Fritschel (1992), Michelle Stephens (1992), Joseph Kovalik (1994), Joseph Giaime (1995), Partha Saha (1997), Nergis Mavalvala (1997), Brett Bochner (1998), Brian Lantz (1999), Julien Sylvestre (2002), Ryan Lawrence (2003) and Rana Adhikari (2004).

He supervised the master's theses of Frank Wentz (1971), David Little (1974), Gerald Blum (1971), Lynne Deutsch (1983), David Shoemaker (1980), and Peter Csatorday (1999), as well as theses for many bachelor's degrees.

Historical note -- Balloon-Borne Cosmic Background Radiation Program and COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) Satellite

COBE was an outgrowth of balloon-borne and ground-based observations of cosmic background radiation begun shortly after the discovery of the radiation in 1965. The major aims of the project were to (a) measure the spectrum of the cosmic background; (b) measure the angular distribution of the cosmic background to the level of confusion imposed by the local astrophysical background; and (c) measure or set limits to the diffuse infrared background in the mm to 1 micron band. COBE satellite explorer was proposed in 1974 by a group of scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), Princeton University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was ultimately flown in 1989 in a configuration very close to this original proposal.

John Mather was one of the original group proposing COBE; others were Robert Silverberg, Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), Michael Hauser (GSFC), Dirk Muehlner (MIT), Rainer Weiss (MIT), and David Wilkinson (Princeton). Subsequently, NASA formed a study team bringing together this group and others who had proposed space-borne cosmic background radiation missions. This team became the original COBE Science Working Group (CSWG or SWG), consisting of Samuel Gulkis (Jet Propulsion Lab), Michael Hauser (GSFC and principal investigator for the DIRBE instrument), John Mather (GSFC project scientist and principal investigator forthe FIRAS instrument), George Smoot (U.C. at Berkeley and principal investigator for the DMR instrument), Rainer Weiss (MIT, CSWG Chair), and David Wilkinson (Princeton).

Rainer Weiss was chair of the COBE Science Working Group and was one of the originators of the mission. MIT had specific hardware responsibilities in making the prototype interferometer for FIRAS (Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer), an instrument that traveled aboard the COBE satellite, and in the development of the bolometric detectors. The MIT group worked on all aspects of the COBE mission. The group included Edward (Ned) Wright, Stephan Meyer, and Edward Cheng (Principal Research Scientist), all of whom played major roles in the CSWG. Cheng became head of the Data Analysis Group and left MIT to join GSFC. Wright was the guiding figure in software development for COBE and was a leading interpreter of the astrophysical results of the mission. Meyer, in addition to his work on COBE, ran a balloon-borne observing program with Lyman Page (who was at that time a graduate student). The balloon experiment confirmed the small-scale anisotropy measurements made by COBE. The COBE project began while Rainer Weiss and the Gravitation Research and Cosmology Group faculty at MIT were affiliated with the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE). In 1983, the COBE project at MIT was brought into the Center for Space Research.

The Differential Microwave Radiometer (DMR) and FIRAS measured background radiation. The Diffuse Infrared Background Experiment (DIRBE) was an experiment that derived data from the infrared COBE detector. Data sent back revealed traces of radiation left over from the origins of the universe, including hot and cold spots in the cosmic background radiation that support the Big Bang Theory. COBE was able to map the entire sky, unlike previous balloon-borne experiments, which had mapped only one-third of the sky.

Historical note -- LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory)

LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) is a joint California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research investigation, supported by the National Science Foundation, to detect gravitational waves, or ripples in the curvature of spacetime. LIGO research is carried out by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), a group of around 1,000 scientists at universities around the United States, including MIT, and in 15 other countries. The LIGO observatories are operated by MIT and Caltech. LIGO is a system of two identical detectors located 1,865 miles apart -- one in Livingston, Louisiana, the other in Hanford, Washington.

On September 14, 2015 (announced in February 2016) scientists from MIT and Caltech made the first direct detection of gravitational waves reaching the Earth. The two LIGO gravitational wave detectors in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, caught a signal for the second time on December 26, 2015.

From a LIGO press release:

On September 14, 2015 at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (09:51 UTC), the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, USA both measured ripples in the fabric of spacetime – gravitational waves – arriving at the Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. The new Advanced LIGO detectors had just been brought into operation for their first observing run when the very clear and strong signal was captured.

This discovery comes at the culmination of decades of instrument research and development, through a world-wide effort of thousands of researchers, and made possible by dedicated support for LIGO from the National Science Foundation. It also proves a prediction made 100 years ago by Einstein that gravitational waves exist.

Rainer Weiss began thinking about a way to measure gravitational waves in the late 1960s when he was teaching a course on relativity at MIT. At MIT he was able to obtain funding and start experimenting in the lab. In the early 1970s Weiss built a 1.5-meter prototype of a LIGO. By the late 1970s, the project had grown to include scientists from both MIT and the California Institute of Technology and was being funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The program continued to grow and plans for construction of two LIGO facilities were realized in the early 2000s. Two facilities were built in the United States, one in Livingston, Louisiana, the other in Hanford, Washington. “Initial LIGO” refers to the LIGO instruments in their first interferometer configuration, from roughly 2001 until 2010.The process of upgrading the LIGO facilities to advanced detectors began in 2010, shortly after the conclusion of the final Initial LIGO data run.

The MIT Libraries has compiled a detailed guide to LIGO and gravitational wave information resources including background and direct links to research publications.

The LIGO detection web site contains press releases, scientific information, and documents about the February 2016 announcement of gravitational wave detection.

MIT LIGO Lab web site:


36 Cubic Feet (111 manuscript boxes, 1 flat box)

Language of Materials


Arrangement note

COBE materials donated in 2015 were added to COBE materials transferred in 1998. LIGO materials and notebook materials transferred in 2015 were accompanied by an inventory, folder titles on the inventory list were retained by Archives staff.

Box 112 contains legal sized materials re-boxed separately to better preserve them. Box 112 contents are listed with the contents of box 1 and box 12, where the folder contents intellectually belong.


Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Source of Acquisition

Materials were given to the Department of Distinctive Collections (formerly the Institute Archives and Special Collections) by Rainer Weiss in 1998 and 2015. Balloon-borne cosmic background radiation files and COBE files were transferred from his office in MIT's Building 20 prior to the building tear down. Additonal COBE materials were donated in 2015 and grouped with the COBE materials transferred earlier. LIGO materials and notebook materials were also transferred from campus (NW17) in 2015.


A draft of a PhD student's dissertation was removed from the collection in 2021.

Related Materials

LIGO and Gravitational Wave Resources in (MIT Libraries Guide)

LIGO Press Conference 2-11-2016, Washington D.C. web site

LIGO Scientific Collaboration Summaries of LSC Scientific Publications.

LIGO Laboratory, and LIGO Laboratory, MIT web sites:

MIT Dspace repository has MIT doctoral and master degree theses of MIT students in the Department of Physics.

MIT Libraries DSpace repository (faculty research publications by Rainer Weiss)

COBE Archives at LAMBDA (Legacy Archive for Microwave Background Data Analysis) NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

California Institute of Technology, The Caltech Archives.


  • "Scientists make first direct detection of gravitational waves" MIT News Office, February 11, 2016.
  • MIT News Office, February 11, 2016. "Q & A: Rainer Weiss on LIGO's origins."
  • "For second time, LIGO detects gravitational waves" MIT News Office, June 15, 2016.
  • LIGO Press Conference, Washington D.C. 2-11-2016
  • "LIGO Does It Again: A Second Robust Binary Black Hole Coalescence Observed" News Release, June 15, 2016
  • MIT News Office, June 2, 2016. "Rainer Weiss wins Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, LIGO inventor shares award for detection of gravitational waves."
  • LIGO and Gravitational Wave Resources in
  • Mather, John C. & John Boslough. The Very First Light: The True Inside Story of the Scientific Journey Back to the Dawn of the Universe. Revised and updated edition. New York: Basic Books, 2008. (MIT Libraries collection cataloged as QB991.C64.M38 2008)
  • Cosmic Background Explorer Observes the Primeval Explosion, by John Mather. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Preservation note

Items reboxed from one large flat box to one flat and one document box in MIT Conservation Lab (Wunsch) in June 2016. The two tapes are in box 8 and the rest of the items listed are in box 7.

Flight data on Digital DECtape Jan 74 flight D.T. #3 Flight recording 1/20/1974 and 1/28/1974 (Ampex magnetic tape) Flight data (15 inch roll of paper) Flight data (6 inch roll of paper) Flight housekeeping data Flight noise studies Flight signal averages / rotation

Guide to the Personal Archives of Rainer Weiss
Jeffrey Mifflin, Nancy Heywood, Ewa Basinska, Elizabeth Andrews, Greta Kuriger Suiter
1998, revised 2015, 2016
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2023 February 9: Revised by Chris Tanguay in January 2023 to update access notes.

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
Building 14N-118
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge MA 02139-4307 US